wed 17/07/2019

Reissue CDs Weekly: Terry Allen | reviews, news & interviews

Reissue CDs Weekly: Terry Allen

Reissue CDs Weekly: Terry Allen

‘Pedal Steal + Four Corners’: outstanding collection of the Texas-born polymaths’s aural plays

Terry Allen: an American greatPino Bertelli

Torso Hell tells the story of an American soldier whose limbs were blown off in Vietnam. Amazingly, he and his buddies survived, and in the ensuing medical chaos his arms and legs were re-attached to them rather than him. The narrator says “At the hospital, it’s so crazy and confused that when these guys come in, the doctors and nurses don’t know what from what … they just start sewing. The main guy stays a torso, but they put his arms and legs back on the other guys. Two guys each get one of his arms … two guys each get one of his legs.” It’s a typically bizarre Terry Allen set-up.

Subsequently, after a spell in Japan and two years in hospital our limbless protagonist ends up at his aunt’s New Mexico boarding house where “They starve him…never clean up his body waste…no furniture in the room…sleeps on old carpet remnants…roaches and spiders and mice run over him. They keep him gagged so he won’t yell for help.” After more abuse and a metaphysical transformation, a form of blood-spattered redemption. And revenge.

TTerry Allen_Pedal Steal Four Corners_coverhe story had its first outing as part of a Vietnam-referencing multi-media installation titled Youth in Asia which was exhibited in 1986. Then it was updated as a radio play for the Los Angeles station KPFK. Its creator, Terry Allen says “the text was adapted to be read as narrations for a radio presentation. Music was written and recorded in Lubbock and Fresno. Narrations were performed live on-air, over the recorded soundtrack.” Next, the radio version – the source here – was made available on cassette. Film director Roger Corman was so taken with Torso Hell he tried to option it as a movie. Allen brushed off the overture, saying it was only meant to heard.

Trying to categorise Allen’s work is pointless as no label adequately encapsulates what he does. Beyond his obvious roots in and debt to country music, the Texas-born polymath plunges into music, performance and visual art, concrête-littered aural collage and prose. Often, some or all of it is brought together – which is where this package of his mixed-media audio plays comes in.

Pedal Steal + Four Corners collects five of Allen’s audio plays: the stand-alone Pedal Steal (1985), plus Torso Hell and its previously unreleased, related follow-ups Bleeder (1990), Reunion (a Return to Juarez) (1992), and Dugout (1993). The latter quartet are grouped under the umbrella title Four Corners; a reference to the cruciform meeting point of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. The “Juarez” referred to in the title of Reunion is Allen’s debut album, issued in 1975.

Terry Allen_Pedal Steal 1988_CDPedal Steal is the most familiar work here as Allen first issued on CD in 1988 after which it was re-released by Sugar Hill (also on CD) in 2006. Although another aural drama, Pedal Steal – a fictive conflation of the edgy tale of pedal steel player Wayne Gailey and the story of Billy The Kid – was created to accompany a dance performance. (pictured left, the cover of the 1988 CD release of Pedal Steal)

While Allen’s noir-like creations – whether aural and visual: his art and photography share an analytical impressionism with William Eggleston and Edward Hopper – address the nature of being American and seek to unpick it, they also occupy a self-referencing continuum: one which got its first public outing when Allen and his wife Jo Harvey began co-creating the Rawhide and Roses radio show on the California radio station KPPC-FM in 1967. The station was run by Pasadena Presbyterian Church.

According to Pedal Steal + Four Corners' informative and well-written book the country focussed KPPC shows were “themed – trains, truckers, Texas, honkytonks, water, weather, old and new songs – and Jo Harvey not only announces the artists and songs, but tells discursive, infectiously charming stories about her family, Lubbock, and her life.” Maybe this off-centre Lake Wobegon precursor with music for Americana-inclined freaks had tipped its hat to The Firesign Theatre.

Terry Allen_torso hell cassette_1987Allen’s extraordinary body of work stands apart. The only broadly analogous creators are the similarly multi-disciplinary Residents, who are also consistently preoccupied with the nature of America while constantly formulating interpretive narratives to address this fascination across multiple fields of expression. Some of David Byrne’s work comes to mind too – he and Allen have collaborated. (pictured right, the cover of the 1987 cassette release of Torso Hell)

This new release is diligent and satisfying. The book supplements literate, thoughtful text with the relevant scripts and illustrations of related artworks and photography. Allen has had an input. Pedal Steal is heard on vinyl and CD. The other four dramas are heard across two CDs. The entire content is also available via a download code included with the package.

Pedal Steal + Four Corners is best approached by first listening to Pedal Steal, allowing it to bed in and then reading the book. After that, and after taking some time, take in Torso Hell, Bleeder, Reunion (a Return to Juarez) and Dugout in sequence and as rapidly as possible. Afterwards, there is only one conclusion – that Terry Allen is an American great.

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